The New 3D Wave

It’s been coming for a while…

  • Every desktop sold has some form of 3D hardware acceleration built in
  • 3D hardware acceleration just gets better and better
  • Applications are in a kind of GUI design rut

We’re starting to see more use of hardware accelerated 3D graphics in mainstream apps. Google’s recently released Picasa 2 image browsing software implements a 3D image browsing mode. Microsoft has been developing Avalon, the new graphics engine for next-generation Windows, for a number of years…you can even download an early preview release to see what the fuss is about. Apple is doing it too, sorta, as a more integrated underlying technology.

So what’s so great about 3D hardware acceleration? For one thing, it’s an untapped processing resource lurking in the guts of your machine, unless you’re playing 3D games on a regular basis. And it’s been there in probably every computer shipped since 1997, with possibly more transisters than even your Pentium or Athlon, specialized completely toward 3D graphics. If you’re not playing 3D games on your computer, you probably never even seen what it’s capable of doing.

I was reminded of the impending wave of 3D by a post on Slashdot about 3DEdit, a video editing program that using real-time processing on video streams and sports a 3D interface with whizzy interactive effects. I have not tried the product itself, but it may very well be the starting shot in a home productivity 3D application war.

This is a window of opportunity to get in on the ground floor of 3D interface design…there aren’t many people who do it. The push for 3D has been a long time coming; there are browser plugins that date back to 1990s that attempted to push 3D, various incarnations of virtual worlds and toolkits, but none of them have stuck. In a couple of years, should Avalon ship, there will suddenly be a market for such things, built-into the operating system.

Technically, video game programmers will have an edge in implementing 3D interfaces now, but programmer-designed interfaces usually look like ass. 3D artists can design cool looking things in 3D, but most don’t have the eye for information and graphic design to pull of a really sweet UI. I’d look toward the Industrial Design and maybe Environmental Graphics people as an interesting hire to help pull things together…that is, if 3D interfaces take off as a differentiating feature for applications. Oh, and of course there are plenty of ex-game industry developers and artists who are kicking around too…they’re used to dealing with bleeding edge tools and funky technical workarounds.

The biggest hurdle probably is some kind of 3D interface standard widget set. Not all data sets and applications require a navigable 3D space–it just looks cool in Minority Report. I suspect we’ll see some enhancements to the basic 2D experience first, much as Apple has lead the way with Expose and its Quartz engine effects. Secondly, we’re a bit stuck with our mouse-driven input devices. Using a mouse to “drive” a 3d space is not very quick or intuitive, unless you’re part of the generation who grew up playing Doom. What is the equivalent of simple “point and click” in a 3D navigable space? Can you imagine your grandma doing this successfully?

If you want to play with 3D interfaces now, Macromedia Director version 8.0 and higher have included crude 3D support for a number of years. You thought you could finally escape Director when Flash MX came out, didn’t you? Wrong! :)

If you want to brush up your 3D skills, check out Blender3d…it’s a free download.